The Revolution in Tunisia Stalls

Even before last week's riots at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, the progress of Tunisia's revolution was beginning to look rocky. Here's why.

Photo by AFP/Stringer/Getty Images
Photo by AFP/Stringer/Getty Images

Tunisia has made international headlines again with the recent storming of the U.S. Embassy by ultraconservative Islamists. Observers and commentators have tried to explain the events and the rage behind them, the attackers’ high level of organization, and the government’s inadequate security response and late condemnation. At least one part of that explanation lies in the fact that the Tunisian people are, yet again, disappointed with their government, and a dysfunctional political process has failed to address the core concerns of citizens.

Tunisians took to the streets in late December 2010 and early January 2011 calling for the end of an authoritarian regime responsible for vast income inequality, widespread unemployment, crippling corruption, and a draconian police state apparatus. Despite the glory of a revolution paid for with the blood of many young people, culminating in the triumph of democratic elections, all of these problems persist. Meanwhile polls show that Tunisians believe their elected officials have accomplished nothing.

Promises to develop Tunisia’s long-neglected interior have seen half-hearted implementation, and unemployment is higher now than it was prior to the revolution. Promises to clean up corruption have proven to be empty as the government’s transitional justice minister claims he is not responsible for the problem. Opposition parties charge that efforts to create a Temporary Judicial Commission are merely an attempt by the governing Islamist Ennahdha party to exert undue political control over the judicial system. Though the worst forms of police abuse were stopped following the revolution, promises to reform the security forces have fallen short as old tactics and old figures re-emerge.

So what went wrong?

Tunisia’s popular revolution aimed to create a government that would stand in stark contrast to the previous one in terms of professionalism and transparency. But so far Tunisians are still waiting. The constituent assembly, tasked with writing a new constitution, has not published minutes of any meetings in either committee or plenary sessions. In addition, voting records and attendance have not been revealed, although observers note that only five or ten of the 20-member drafting commissions attended regularly. Absenteeism has been particularly prevalent amongst opposition parties, partly because some do not take their jobs seriously and partly because some want to see Ennahdha fail, according to several observers who are closely watching the process.

Part of this reflects a cultural legacy, according to Mabrouka M’barek, an assembly member from governing coalition’s Congress for the Republic Party (CPR). "I was the first to start live-tweeting the assembly sessions," says M’barek. "My colleagues didn’t understand what I was doing. They told me I was exposing state secrets. I said, ‘No, this is the constitution, which concerns all citizens.’

This lack of transparency has led Al Bawsala, an NGO that has created a website dedicated to publishing leaked minutes and tracking voting records, to file a lawsuit against the assembly. After making its arguments in a meeting with the president of the assembly, the group sent two formal requests for publication of the assembly’s sessions. Having received no response, Al Bawsala, the non-government organization Nawaat, and five individuals filed a legal case at the end of August to draw attention to this issue.

"People have a right to know, but the Constituent Assembly just doesn’t publish [any information]," Amira Yahyaoui, founder and president of Al Bawsala says. "That shouldn’t be our work. It is not up to us to take the information to give to the people. It’s the Constituent Assembly’s role to say what they are doing and it is the media’s role. But we don’t have the time to wait until they decide to be more professional, more transparent."

While some elected officials have been helpful in assisting Al Bawsala and providing information on the assembly’s proceedings, Yahyaoui says that her organization has to be careful in making sure that assembly members understand that the lawsuit she is working on is not meant to attack them.

"It’s a culture of accountability that our MP’s lack," says Selim Kharrat, executive director of Al Bawsala. "Our role as a non-government organization is to push them to be more transparent and to respect Tunisians’ right to access reliable information."

Thanks to the lack of information, many Tunisians have come to believe that their elected officials were not working at all. "Without proactive efforts by the National Constituent Assembly to communicate about the constitutional process or their work to the population, citizens were left in complete darkness about what was happening," says Marion Volkmann of the Carter Center observation mission in Tunisia.

According to Volkmann, instead of improving the visibility and openness of their internal processes, the assembly responded to citizen frustration by announcing arbitrary, self-imposed deadlines.

Coupled with the problem of transparency, the government suffers from a lack of focus and crippling partisanship that has fostered dysfunction. Polling both by local and international research groups show that while employment and economic reform remain their highest concern, Tunisians believe that their government does not share their priorities.

According to a recent report based on findings from Tunisian focus groups by the National Democratic Institute, "a greater proportion of participants than in past studies have negative views about the country’s direction due to dissatisfaction with the state of economic development, the rising cost of living, and insecurity — all factors that participants agree could be addressed by politicians if they focused their attention to them."

Instead, the Constituent Assembly has focused — according to the mandate proscribed by the unelected previous transitional government — on rewriting the constitution. This course was chosen despite the fact that many Tunisians agree that there is very little wrong with the substance of the previous constitution, which predated the era of former dictator Ben Ali.

While the constitutional process has sparked debate on important structural issues — including the differences between a presidential system versus a parliamentary system, the formation of an independent judiciary commission, and the regulation of the Tunisian media — the executive branch of the government, headed by Ennahda, has diverted attention by making a priority of social issues, such as the role of women and laws against blasphemy. Instead of writing a constitution that outlines freedoms, the delegates have written draft laws that address social values, which essentially define limitations rather than freedoms. This has acted as a lightning rod, derailing efforts to address pressing economic issues or hold substantive debate on the more tedious issues of constitutional reform.

The text on women’s rights that passed the Commission on Rights and Liberties was made public when Selma Mabrouk, a dissenting member of the political party Ettakatol, published the text on her Facebook page. Her translation from the Arabic, which remains disputed, notes that women’s rights are to be based on the "principle of complementarity with man as the heart of the family and as man’s associate in the development of the nation."

However one chooses to translate it, the text of the only constitutional article that explicitly addresses women places their equality in the context of family relations. According to commission vice-president and opposition member Salma Baccar, this "could represent a danger to certain categories of women," as there is no reference to single women or women without families. Beyond that, the text provides no definition of "women’s rights," nor does it address the issues of violence or discrimination against women.

The article on women’s rights has also drawn criticism from human rights groups.

"The major problem is that there is no mention of ‘non-discrimination’ against women," says Amna Guellali, the Human Rights Watch representative in Tunisia. Beyond that, she says, the current text is "a vehicle to another vision of society where you don’t have equality; you have something different."

Said Ferjani, a member of Ennahdha’s political bureau and an advisor to the Minister of Justice, dismisses the criticisms, insisting that the text merely states the fact that "biologically, [men and women] are complementary to one another."

"So now we have to ask men to be pregnant?" he scoffs.

Another proposed draft law, which criminalizes offenses against "sacred values," has prompted criticism of the government by NGOs for trying to limit freedom of expression.

"It adds a new layer to repressive laws," Guellali of HRW says.

Ennahdha members say that they were reluctant to introduce a bill but were forced to do so after a series of coordinated, violent protests erupted in response to an art exhibit that displayed artwork deemed offensive to Islam.

"We cannot allow people to use ‘the sacred’ in a negative way," says Ferjani. "The country will be in flames. Our national security is at stake."

It is precisely these values issues and the subsequent drawing of partisan battle lines that have steered Tunisia away from the goals of the revolution.

"The blasphemy law is a great example of how Ennahda did not understand the priorities of this country," says M’barek. "Do you really think we did this revolution for that? They have to assume their responsibility and try to understand why we did this revolution. It’s about jobs; it’s about fighting corruption. Those are the priorities."

Tunisia’s current political climate is marred by discord between politicians, dissatisfaction among civil society groups, and a disillusioned electorate. Given the divisions, some politicians and legal scholars say that passage of the proposed constitution will likely fail in assembly and then fail in a referendum. With political failure palpable, ultraconservative Islamist thuggery on the rise, and elections expected to be held this spring, Tunisia’s first democratically elected officials would be wise to revisit the causes of the revolution before they put themselves at the mercy of the voters.

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